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A Magazine for Sheffield

Community councils: Clearing up the mess

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Joe Scarborough

I'm going to tell you how we can clear up the mess that is the world. We'll start small though. We'll start with clearing up dog mess.

I know what you're thinking. Dog mess? With public services crumbling, climate emergency coming and crises all around? When democracy has become a scream of opposing tweets? Put all that to one side for now. We'll start with dog mess.

When I see dog mess on the street I sometimes go out and clear it up, armed with plastic bags and a kettle of boiling water. But sometimes it's too late or it's a couple of roads away. Soon enough it's got smeared around on some kid's shoe. Piles of shit everywhere - a bit medieval.

What would be handy is if we had a way of sorting out the dog mess as a community. For example, if we set up a system where everyone in the neighbourhood paid a bit of money. Then with that money, we set up a little organisation. This organisation could do work around the area, cleaning things up and sorting things out. To make it democratic, we could elect residents to form a sort of local council to discuss what needs to happen next.

That sort of system and organisation exists. It's called a community council.

If enough people get together they can call for a community council or a city council can set them up after a 'governance review'. By adding a charge on top of council tax, the community council can pay staff. If they have at least two-thirds elected members and some training for staff, the community council can pretty much do anything. Buy land for allotments. Set up a scheme for sharing DIY tools. Set up a food bank. Lobby bigger councils. Run youth centres. Develop plans setting out what the neighbourhood wants. Fund charities. Buy buildings for public use. Build playgrounds. Fund public events. Help charities with funding applications and training. Co-ordinate and provide space for campaigns. Maintain parks. Link local businesses. Pressure local MPs. Fund community police officers. Buy land to force developers into negotiations. And clear up dog mess.

[Community councils] are the front line of democracy

Community councils have done all these things. A lot of them are called parish councils or town councils, but really they are councils run by the community. Having just a few staff, often employed from the area, with councillors who are local too, they are of and by the community. They are the front line of democracy.

There can be downsides, of course. Higher-up councils can dump things they don't want onto community councils as austerity bites. Community councils can have elected councillors who care more about playing politics than actually doing something for their area. But times are changing. More and more people passionate about improving their area are winning elections. More and more, the staff being recruited are interested in making a real difference to their community. Community councils are actively helping local areas push back against austerity, globalised capital and climate change. They give neighbourhoods voice and power.

Where next? Working together to solve problems in a democratic way can be difficult. Supporting everyone to have an equal say, even if they look different and think differently from you, can be really difficult. The more we learn about how to do it locally, the greater chance we can do it for the whole planet.

We've made a bit of a mess of things lately. We have to learn how to clear that mess up and the best thing when learning is to start small. So maybe we start with the dog mess and see how far we can get.

Jason Leman

Next article in issue 134

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